IAF’s ‘Super Sukhois’: Inside the $7.5 Billion Upgrade of Su-30MKI Fighter Jets

Doubts Linger as IAF Skips Engine Power Boost for Su-30 MKIs: Will They Be Enough?

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The Indian Air Forces’ (IAF) Su-30 MKI fighter jets are no longer the cutting-edge aircraft they were when first inducted. India owns a fleet of 272 Su-30 fighter planes, which it has acquired in several tranches since the early 2000s. The planes have already been modified with Indian systems and weaponry, such as the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and the Astra air-to-air missile.

According to the Ministry of Defence, India now has an official plan to improve the capabilities of the Su-30MKI fighter jets.

The Russian Su-27 Flankerderivative will undergo considerable upgrades, including integrating modern and advanced technologies seen in 4.5-generation combat planes.

Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), India’s state-owned aviation business, is going to integrate enhancements such as advanced armament like the locally produced anti-radiation missile RudraM and the long-range subsonic cruise missile Nirbhay into the Su-30MKIs.

Rudram Missiles

The Rudram series of air-to-surface missiles was developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to counter adversary air defence systems. These missiles, which can identify and neutralise radar, communication, and other radio frequency sources, can be launched at variable altitudes and speeds from various IAF fighter jets.

The Rudram missile family consists of various variants with varying ranges and capabilities. The Rudram-1, India’s first domestic anti-radiation missile, was successfully tested in 2020. Rudram-2 and Rudram-3 programs are planned to have longer ranges and higher speeds, contributing to IAF’s Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) capabilities.

Passive and active radar homing, inertial navigation systems, satellite navigation, and imaging infrared homing guide RudraM missiles. The variant, launch altitude, and speed determine the range of these missiles. Rudram-1, for example, has a range of 150 kilometres, Rudram-2 has a range of 300 kilometres, and Rudram-3 has a range of 550 kilometres. 

Nirbhay Cruise Missile

Nirbhay is an all-weather, long-range subsonic cruise missile designed and developed in India by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It can be launched from a variety of platforms and can carry both conventional and nuclear explosives. 

Nirbhay takes off with a solid rocket booster, which is ejected after the desired velocity and height is reached. Then, for additional propulsion, a turbofan engine takes over. An inertial navigation system, a radio altimeter, and a satellite navigation system guide the missile. It also contains an active radar homing system, electro-optical terminal guidance, and imaging infrared terminal guidance.

Nirbhay has a range of up to 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) and can cruise at a speed of 0.9 Mach (1070 kilometres per hour).

Nirbhay can fly at various altitudes ranging from 50 m (160 ft) to 4 km (13,000 ft) and at low altitudes to evade enemy radar detection. It is capable of sea-skimming and loitering, which means it can go around a target, conduct multiple manoeuvres, and then re-engage it. It may also choose and attack a single target from a group of targets.

Extended-range BrahMos missiles

The BrahMos missile, developed through collaboration between India and Russia, is a supersonic cruise missile deployable from diverse platforms such as fighter jets, submarines, ships, and land-based systems. Renowned for its high speed ( 3,700 km/h), accuracy, and adaptability, it has been officially integrated into the Indian Armed Forces.

Recently, IAF accomplished successful trials of the extended-range (ER) edition of the air-launched Brahmos missile, enhancing its ability to engage targets at increased distances. The Brahmos ER variant boasts a supersonic flight and can reach land and sea targets within 400 to 500 kilometres. 

Avionics Upgrade

Among the other changes are a redesigned cockpit with cutting-edge touchscreen displays, an improved mission control computer, and the integration of a domestically produced AESA radar.

Regarding the cockpit upgrade, pilots will benefit from new-generation, larger touchscreen screens, which will assist their combat missions by providing better data visualisation for a smoother experience. 

Furthermore, the Su-30 MKI aircraft will have a domestically built “Virupaaksha” Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. 

Simultaneously, the Su-30MKIs’ mission control computer, a critical component of the fighter jet’s avionics system, will be modified to properly manage the advanced technology of the Virupaaksha radar, as well as the enhanced armament package and the modernised state-of-the-art cockpit. 

The total cost of upgrading the Su-30MKIs is estimated to be $7.5 billion, a metamorphosis referred to by the Indian Air Force as “Super Sukhois.” 

At the same time, the mission control computer of the Su-30MKIs, a key component of the fighter jet’s avionics system, will undergo a makeover to effectively manage the advanced technology of the Virupaaksha radar, along with the upgraded weapons package and the modernised state-of-the-art cockpit. 

The entire expense for upgrading the Su-30MKIs is projected to be $7.5 billion, a transformation that the Indian Air Force refers to as turning the aircraft into “Super Sukhois.” 

Same Engine and Airframe

The upgrades are power-intensive, and the official statement makes no mention of engine modifications or airframe strengthening. Conversely, Russia is modernising its Su-30SM fighter fleet, which will share power plants with the Su-35S planes. It entails swapping out the Su-30SM AL-31FP engines for AL-41F1S engines. This engine and the Ibris-E radar were offered to reequip the IAF Su-30MKI. There were reports of SU-30SM tests with the new engine in 2022, but the December 2023 delivery press statement does not mention the engine.

This month, IAF Chief VR Chaudhari stated that the Su-30 will no longer be a Russian jet following a major indigenous upgrade by India HAL. He said the Su-30MKI has been upgraded to be 78% indigenous, using its own Aesa Radar, Missiles, Sensors, and Avionics. He added that the Su-30 will be significantly upgraded in the first phase to become a formidable 4.5+ Gen Jet to serve alongside other Indian-built aircraft.


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